Skier Need To Know—Boots

boots drive the skis…

When most skiers think about an upgrade to their gear, they think skis. Skis are big. It’s what our eyes go to first. We see them dangling off the chair lift. They’re what we see stacked up at the lodge. We see someone dashing down the slope and we look at their skis and think, “I wish had those skis so I could do that!” Boots just sort of blend in with the background somehow.

Skis do indeed make a difference in how you ski. There can be no denying that. But they are not the biggest factor in your potential to ski, and ski well. If at this point you are thinking—maybe it’s boots? You would be right.

Boots provide the connection between your body and the ski. Think of them as transformers. Energy transformers. The energy you generate in your legs gets transformed and transferred by the boots to the ski. This is true for snowboarders as well. So please do read on if your preference is for one plank rather than two sticks.

Boots tell the skis what to do

Because the boots are in charge of how your skis behave, it’s important to understand them. The wrong boots lead to frustrating skiing. Sometimes the wrong boots can be downright painful. The wrong boots NEVER make for happy feet. Which means the wrong boots NEVER make for happy skiers.

Because ski boots are such a personal thing, you really need to purchase them in person. We do not advocate buying ski boots online. There is too small a probability of getting a great fit. Whoever the online seller, they can’t slip in a heel lift for you to try, and they can’t heat form a boot either. You really need face-to-face with a boot fitter.

When you come to Avie’s Ski / Sports to try on boots, be sure to bring the socks you wear when you ski. This is important if you want to get a really great fit. You will need to set aside at least an hour of time for boot fitting. Be prepared to try on several brands and models. Why? Because there are many options and many nuances among boot brands and models. It takes a while to dial in that exact, really wonderful feeling fit.

It also helps that, when you first check in with the Avie’s boot fitter, you let them know a bit about you as a skier. Are you a beginner, intermediate, or expert level skier? Do you race or stay only on the groomers? Do you spend most of your time in the park or woods? Knowing a bit about your ability and preferences will help the Avie’s boot fitter make an initial selection of a boot style that fits your skiing style.

It also helps the boot fitter if you let then know the actual brand and model of your skis. It might help to take a look at the “Skier Need To Know—Skis” webpage. Skis and boots work together as a unit, so you need to give consideration to your ski package as a whole. Matching ultra-stiff race boots, for instance, with rental skis makes no sense at all. So don’t neglect your skis. But let’s get our focus back, for the moment, to ski boots. 

Once you understand a bit about ski boots, you can find the right boot for you. It’s not complicated, but there are lots of considerations. We will boil it down to the basics, then expand as needed. The main characteristics of ski boots to concern yourself with are size, width, and stiffness.

Boot Size

Size really doesn’t need much explanation. You do need to know however, that despite size being an industry standard, each brand and model of boot will “feel” longer or shorter to your feet. It’s important to come into Avie’s Ski / Sports and have us measure your feet. Then try on several brands and models of boots. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that knowing your shoe size is good enough. Ski boots follow “mondo” sizing, which doesn’t always correspond well to what U.S. shoe size you wear. That’s why the first thing we do is measure your foot.

The subtle differences between boot models and brands can make a huge difference to your feet!

Boot Width

Boot “last” is a measure of the width of the boot at the widest part in the forefoot. The measurement is given in millimeters (mm). Narrow boots are in the 96-99 mm range. Medium would be 100-102 mm wide. Wide is anything wider than 102 mm.

How the boot feels width-wise depends a lot upon construction of the liner. This is another reason why you need to find a ski boot in person. These “nuances” make up the difference between “fits okay” and “nirvana!!”

In general terms, the narrower the boot the more connected you will be to the ski. The better the connection between your legs and the ski, the more control you have. More control, for experienced skiers, means better skiing.

Ski racers stuff their feet into pretty narrow boots. But a ski racer is making only one or two runs. Performance wins over comfort when racing. For those wearing ski boots all day, super tight may not be an ideal solution.

Narrow means tight, and tight can mean less comfort. But that shouldn’t mean painful. If you are a performance oriented skier, then you want a boot that is as narrow as can be while allowing enough comfort so that you aren’t in pain. Remember, you will be in those boots for hours on end.

Most skiers seek a compromise—snug, but still pretty comfortable. 

Narrow and tight also means not much air space. And air, once it heats up in the boot, is what keeps your feet warm. So overly tight boots will also tend to be less warm. So there is a penalty for being a control freak. Super narrow, tight fitting boots tend to be a bit less comfortable and less warm. The benefit is you will have the ultimate control over the skis!!

Ultimately, the correct fit of the boot is up to you. The boot fitter at Avie’s Ski / Sports will get you into the correct size for your feet, in a model that corresponds to your ability and preferences. You however, will decide the final fit. If you value warmth and comfort more than anything, then your boots should fit to give you that. A craving for high performance means you want a really snug fit that makes you feel super connected to the ski. Only you will be able to make that final determination.

Boot Stiffness

Unfortunately, there is no industry standard for flex ratings in ski boots. Use the flex number as guidance to how stiff a boot will be, overall. The higher the flex number the stiffer the boot. The stiffer the boot the more direct the flow of energy from leg to ski. When you flex into your boots making a turn, a stiff boot will make the ski respond quickly and positively. A softer boot will respond more slowly, not being as responsive to your movements.

So why not just get the stiffest, tightest boot?

Not everyone wants, or should have, instantaneous and absolute control. Beginners, for instance, need a soft boot with lots of flex as they learn control. The great range of flex in a softer boot allows the beginner to gradually power the ski into a turn but then throttle back quickly when they panic. A beginner in super stiff boots would be frustrated to the max as they get tossed to the snow on each and every turn. They don’t have the skill yet to control the ski. So wearing a boot that delivers maximum power will be a huge detriment to a beginner.

Nor do all expert skiers wear the stiffest of boots. Many do, but not all. Some want the range of motion in a boot that allows lots of flex so they can play hard in the woods, and ski better in powder. In the park, having a range of flex is a very, very good thing.  And perhaps some expert skiers simply want the comfort of a less stiff boot. They will still ski at an expert level, but maybe just a bit less precise and controlling than if they were in a stiffer boot.

First Impressions

Toes should never be jammed up in the ski boot. Never. When you first step into the boot the tips of your toes should just be touching the front end of the liner. If not, the boots are likely too big. It’s okay, in fact desirable, to have your toes touching the liner. Once you get into typical ski position with knees bent and legs flexed, your heel should nestle into the rear pocket of the boot. When that happens your toes pull back as well. If your toes still hit with knees bent and legs flexed in skiing position, try boots the next size larger or a different brand or style.

Your feet tell you “best fit”

Overall your ski boots should feel good. They should be snug, and comfortable. They should not hurt. If they hurt a lot, get them off and try another brand or model, or a size up. If just a wee bit too snug or if there is a pinch point in a particular spot, there are solutions. Try a heel lift, or a custom footbed. Almost always one of those solutions provides relief. If not, then have the liners heated and let them form to your feet in the shop. Still no resolution? Then comes custom fitting, which opens a larger dialog between you and the Avie’s boot fitter.

Women have lower calve muscles than men, and many boot manufacturers have adjustments that can account for this in women’s boots. But not on all models. If you—and this means ladies only—feel some discomfort at the calf muscle area, ask if the boot has those adjustment options. If not, try a boot that does. It may just put a really big smile on your face.

Don’t oversize your boot thinking a pair of thick socks will snug things up and keep you warmer. This sounds like a good idea, but isn’t. Your feet will slip around, and as the liner ages and packs down, you will slip around even more. Boot liners today are quite warm. Thin socks are the norm, and work the best.

Tweak To Perfection

Once you find your “ultimate” boot, there are a few things you can do to make them even better. The first is to insert a custom footbed. You get a very generic footbed with your new boots. Manufacturers cannot possibly account for all the variations in foot arch, so they don’t try. They assume you will replace generic with a custom footbed. So do so.

A custom footbed will provide you with better arch support, as well as nestle your foot properly into the boot. This will make for a better fit for better control, and will be so much more comfortable. For the small price involved, generally about $50, this is one upgrade you should definitely make. Powder magazine says “One of the best, but most overlooked, solutions to a good fit [in a boot] is investing in a custom footbed. They provide a natural stance within the boot which further aids in matching your foot to the boot last.” So when the Avie’s boot fitter suggests a custom footbed, it’s not an “up sell,” they are steering you to greater comfort. Your feet will love you for listening to the boot fitter.

Almost all ski boots today come with heat moldable liners. This means the liners can be heated at Avie’s Ski / Sports while you wait. Once heated, you wear the boots in the shop for 10 or 15 minutes to allow them to form to your feet. Generally you don’t need to do this. In fact, we only recommend it if the boot feels really good, but with one or two little areas of discomfort. Then heat molding makes sense so you can see if they are indeed your ultimate ski boot. If the heating doesn’t resolve the minor issues, then the boots may not be right for you, or need customization by the boot fitter.

There is a trend for the newest of ski boots to have totally heat moldable shells. The entire boot can be heated in a convection oven (yes, Avie’s has a boot oven), then fit to your foot. The trend began a few seasons ago, and now appears to be showing up more regularly. Heating the shell however, is only done when there is a specific problem to solve. Heat mold the liner to resolve minor fit issues, heat the shell for major issue resolution.

We don’t recommend heat forming all boot liners right off because once you start wearing your new ski boots on the mountain, the heat from your feet forms the liner naturally to your foot shape. This is the best way because you are forming the liners to your feet “real time” on the mountain while skiing. The fit is therefore precise and perfect.

If any issues arise, then you need to bring the boots to Avie’s Ski / Sports and we can do some custom boot fitting to make those issues go away. Avie’s boot fitters may need to heat and stretch the actual boot shell to resolve an issue. Not a big deal to do, and it can make a really big difference to your feet!!

Keep in mind that over time, the boot liner tends to get “packed down.” The material, generally foam, gets compressed. The end result is that your boots start to feel bigger, or loose. You compensate for this by adjusting the buckles and snugging up the fit. When you get to the point where you can’t adjust for a good fit, it’s definitely time for new boots!

A Few More Considerations

3-Buckle vs. 4-Buckle—The 3-buckle design allows for more flex in the upper portion of the boot, making for a more comfortable, more relaxed run down the slopes. The 4-buckle provides a more positive connection to the ski, with a bit less comfort. 3-buckle boots are also generally easier to get into, and out of.

Cabrio vs. Overlap—Cabrio allows for consistent flex—against the boot tongue—no matter how much you pressure the tongue of the boot. This allows for more free flowing and dynamic movement, and is ideal for most all snow conditions, especially soft snow and powder. Some cabio-style boots have interchangeable tongues so that stiffness can be altered to better fit conditions. For example, a less stiff boot on a powder day. A cabrio-style boot is often easier to slide the foot into. Overlap design allows for initial flex, then increasingly resists flexing. This allows for more aggressive control of the ski. This will be ideal on very hard snow, and of course for racing. Overlap boots make foot entry a bit more challenging, at times.

For a more in-depth look at the behavior, functionality, and performance of cabrio and overlap ski boots, check out “3-Buckle Cabrio vs 4-Buckle Overlap” where an Avie’s Ski / Sports gear tester gives you some details about the difference, pro and con, between the two boot styles from a first-hand perspective.

Is there a proper way to buckle a ski boot? 

Yes. Absolutely. Everyone has their own “proper and best” way to buckle a ski boot. Forget the buckling process for the moment. What you need to do is get your foot in the boot and your heel settled into the pocket at the rear of the boot. We suggest putting on the boot, then gently tapping the heel on the floor to settle the heel in the pocket. Don’t wham the heel down. That makes your foot recoil and spring back out of the pocket. Get your heel nicely tucked into the heel pocket.

Then buckle up, in whatever sequence you feel gets and keeps your heel locked in the pocket. On a 3-buckle boot, try the middle buckle first as that is most likely to lock in the heel. On a 4-buckle, try any of the two in the middle. Experiment. Develop your own “best way” to buckle in.

Regardless the sequence, buckles should snap over easily, but positively. They should not be difficult to close. If you find yourself really having to force a buckle to close, it’s too tight. Loosen it up. Cranking the buckles down super tight only compresses the liner needlessly, aging it prematurely. If you find that you must crank down on the buckles in order to get a decent fit, it really is time for new boots!

One final thing—GripWalk. For ski boots and ski bindings, GripWalk is the new industry standard. In short, the boot sole is redesigned for easier walking, and to resolve issues between boot fit in touring and alpine bindings.

Although touring vs. alpine issues have been resolved, temporary issues have cropped up between new, GripWalk equipped ski boots and non-GripWalk ski bindings. Fixes exist, but not in all cases. Read the “Skier Need To Know—GripWalk” page for details.

For now, let it suffice to say that if you are considering the purchase of new ski boots and you know your ski bindings are not GripWalk compatible, check to be sure that the boots come with, or that you can get, a set of standard issue boot soles. Avie’s can swap the soles out for you; keep the GripWalk soles for when you buy those new skis!

Time To Go Boot Shopping

Whether for your first ever boots or to replace old, you are now ready to stop in at Avie’s Ski / Sports and try on some ski boots. Check out the available ski boots at Avie’s so you can start pondering your options.

But remember—listen to your feet! They will let you know what feels good, and not. Bring your ski socks when you come. Relax and take your time. This decision defines your warmth and comfort on the slopes. It defines the level of control you will have over your skis. This decision is a big one. Don’t rush it. Tell the Avie’s boot fitter how you ski. Tell them what feels good and not so good.

You will get to the right fit. Your feet will tell you.

[updated October 2022]